French gay rights campaigners are celebrating a milestone for equal rights after parliament finalised adoption of a bill giving lesbian couples and single women access to fertility treatment for the first time.
Under current French law, only heterosexual couples have the right to access medically assisted procreation methods such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
Lesbian couples and single women who want children have to travel abroad for IVF using donor sperm.
That is set to change under the bill pushed through by President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which passed a final vote in the National Assembly on Tuesday after two years of protests and 500 hours of debate.
The draft law, which was backed by 326 MPs to 115 against, with 42 abstentions, winds back some of western Europe’s strictest rules governing medically assisted pregnancies.
The legislation brings France in line with a dozen European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, that do not discriminate between heterosexual and same-sex couples, or between couples and single women, when it comes to reproductive rights.
The Inter-LGBT association said it welcomed the change, which it described as a “forceps birth” after years of foot-dragging by successive governments and further delays wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
A spokesperson for the association of French same-sex families, Fabien Joly, has warned that demand is so strong it could lead to sperm bank shortages.
The government has promised to try to make up for lost time, saying that women will be able to begin treatment in the autumn with a view to becoming pregnant by the end of 2021.
“It’s a good day for our country,” the health minister, Olivier Véran, told French public radio ahead of the vote.
While campaigning for the presidency in 2017, Macron said he was in favour of extending fertility treatment to lesbian and single women.
But once elected, the centrist leader repeatedly put off changing the law, mindful of the mass protests triggered by a same-sex marriage bill in 2013 that caught the government of his predecessor, François Hollande, off guard.
However, public opinion this time is squarely behind the move, which will make France the 11th country in the 27-member EU to allow medically assisted procreation for lesbian couples and single women alike.
A recent Ifop poll found that 67% of French people supported the measure.
Calls for protests by the largely Catholic anti-gay marriage movement yielded only a tepid response.
Under the proposed law, which was first ratified by the National Assembly in October 2019 but then held up in the Senate, France’s healthcare system will cover the cost of fertility procedures for all women under 43.
The right-wing Republicans party, which has a majority in the Senate, and the far-right National Rally had strongly opposed the bill.
“You will produce children that have been deprived of a father,” the Republicans MP Patrick Hetzel argued.
In the end the Senate grudgingly backed the bill after introducing hundreds of amendments, but rightwing lawmakers continued to resist having the state cover the cost of the treatment.
In the event of disagreements, the National Assembly, which is controlled by Macron’s Republic on the Move party and its allies, has the final say.
The outcome of the vote on Macron’s only major social reform so far is therefore seen as a foregone conclusion.
The legislation addresses several issues arising out of the huge increase in the use of fertility treatment in recent years.
Controversially, it allows children conceived with donor sperm to learn the donor’s identity when they become adults, ending the anonymity that donors in France have been guaranteed until now.
And it allows women in their 30s to freeze their eggs – a procedure currently available only to women undergoing treatment for conditions that could affect their fertility, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy for cancer.
But it stops short at legalising surrogacy, a practice used by some couples to have children that is still widely rejected in France.